There were clearly some opening game jitters from Team USA, as the under 20 squad kicked off its 2017 World Junior Championships campaign against Latvia.
The early goings saw the Americans grab a 1-0 thanks to a lovely Patrick Harper wrist shot. But the squad gave one right back after an errant pass sailed out of the offensive zone and the Latvians picked it up off a line change and scored on a backhanded breakaway.
It was a costly mistake and one that almost happened more than once. The first two periods were rife with passing mistakes and saw Latvia get out on multiple odd-man rushes. Some of this has to do with how aggressively the USA defense plays in the offensive zone, but it’s all the more reason why the forwards need to pay closer attention to where their passes are being placed. A better team will kill the Americans on those odd-man rushes resulting from turnovers.
Penalties were another frustrating aspect of this opening game for Team USA. The second period should have opened with the US on a power play but a roughing call on Troy Terry as the buzzer sounded in the 1st led to a trip to the penalty box for him and a 4-on-4. Again, a mistake that could easily have been avoided and one that a better opponent would take advantage of.
The penalties kept coming for Team USA and, at one point, the Americans had three minor stick infractions in a row. Latvia had two different 5-on-3 opportunities. Thankfully, the active sticks of the United States’ penalty kill kept any damage from being done.
The third period showed us what Team USA can do when the squad is firing on all cylinders. The penalties went away, as did the passing mistakes and Latvian odd-man rushes. The U.S. played a complete period, capitalizing on scoring chances, leading to a three-goal third.
Clayton Keller was fantastic all evening. He picked up a great rebound goal late in the 2nd period, thanks to his superb presence in front of the net. He deftly spun away from a Latvian defender and found himself all alone in front of the goal as a shot went off the pad of goalie Mareks Mitens. Keller slotted it in off the rebound. He showed what an undersized guy can and has to do in front of the goal.
Jordan Greenway was a force in front of goal as well. His big body and physical play were evident all night and it all culminated in a nice rebound goal with just 40 seconds left in the game. He ended up with the player of the game honors for Team USA as a result.
Goalie Tyler Parsons only faced 12 shots but he made a couple of superb saves in the 3rd period. He likely won’t face that few opportunities in the games to come but it was great to see him alert and never resting on his laurels despite a lack of activity for much of the game.
Overall, this ended up being a solid effort by Team USA. It was good to shake off the jitters and figure out how to play as a team while still getting a win to open the tournament. Wednesday’s game against Slovakia likely won’t be as one-sided on the score sheet, so the Americans will need to play a complete game the way they played the third period against Latvia.